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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “The Magicians: All light, no heat, but still a bright read”

    It’s impossible to read Lev Grossman’s new book, “”The Magicians,”” and not be reminded of Harry Potter. A dimension-hopping adventure that employs magic, transfiguration and epic questions of destiny and fate, the outward comparison hovers between coincidental and inevitable, “”Harry Potter”” being the most popular fantasy series of all time. But instead of weighing down Grossman’s 400-page second book, it buoys the hefty, fantastical adult novel, which reads as the savvier, more cynical upperclassman to Potter’s flippant first-year affectations.

    Young Quentin Coldwater hates his life — until he is invited (by way of a Brooklyn side-garden portal) to attend Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Graduates are called magicians, not wizards, but only after five years of rigorous, creatively written practical training. Schooling for Grossman’s magicians includes a personalized entrance exam that, for Quentin, involves making up his own language complete with grammar and a fourth-year sojourn to Antarctica, where students arrive after making the flight transfigured into geese.

    Grossman’s storybook-like language provides a sly contrast to his authentic dialogue and the agonizingly believable relationships between his characters. The languid tone practically begs to be read aloud before a roaring fire, but with the frequent expletives and sexual encounters, this isn’t your mother’s bedtime story.

    It is the book’s self-awareness and shrewd, sophisticated characterization that save it from being just another derivative fantasy paperback. It is a fantasy novel, but with a modern update that is both youthful and adult. As one character says about a punk named Penny regarding his attack on Quentin, “”‘Are you kidding me? That guy was like a mystery wrapped in an enigma strapped to a f*cking time bomb. He was either going to hit you or start a blog. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of glad he hit you.'””

    Grossman knows what he’s up against in the genre, and he shades his particular brand of magic with subtlety and just a hint of real-world bitterness. Surprisingly literary, “”The Magicians”” tries very hard to convince its reader that it is not genre fantasy and not for children.

    While all the appendages of a great novel are present — compelling characters, humor, intrigue and pithy dialogue — the action of the story is far from neatly plotted. The characters spend the first half of the book at Brakebills, but then Grossman begins to lean too heavily upon the genre he wears so lightly: He sends his plucky young protagonists lumbering into a Narnia-esque other-world, on an epic, mysterious adventure, to save a foreign land, kill an evil man and rescue the girl. This almost-trite plotting is somewhat befuddling, as it was hardly hinted at in the first 200 pages. Grossman’s plot is a tenuous, nonsensical skeleton, but it is dressed with rich, beautiful imagery, lovely and authentic characterization and a smirk of self-possessed wit.

    Though “”The Magicians”” is a thoroughly enjoyable, sometimes enlightening read, it falls just short of being completely realized. For all his charm and cleverness, Grossman doesn’t quite breathe life into the body of the masterpiece he almost crafted. There isn’t much fun or much spark. Grossman seems to regard the magical elements of his novel almost ironically, or apologetically, the way one might wear a Lord of the Rings t-shirt. Though one might enjoy and even recommend this adventure/fantasy/romance to a friend, a reader can’t help but feel as if Grossman can’t quite bring himself to believe in the magic of which he writes.

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